"An acute threat to white privilege": Tim Wise on why MAGA is "losing their s**t right now"

The right-wing also has a backup plan

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 14, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Thousands of Donald Trump supporters gather outside the U.S. Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Thousands of Donald Trump supporters gather outside the U.S. Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

August 28 was the 60th anniversary of the1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech about the struggle to create a real multiracial democracy and humane society in the United States. On that same Saturday this year, a 21-year-old white supremacist murdered 3 black people at a Dollar General Store in Jacksonville, Florida. The killer's AR-15 rifle was marked with swastikas. He also wrote a manifesto where he detailed his desire(s) to kill black people and start a "race war." In his manifesto, the white supremacist killer reportedly praised Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, who is black, for being "The rare principled conservative, interprets laws based the Constitution instead of doing f—y activist shit like the last half-century's worth of Supreme Court justices."

That horrible coincidence of dates is a reminder of how very far America is from being a real multiracial democracy as the country continues to struggle against ascendant neofascism and the Age of Trump.

Ultimately, the Confederacy and the Southern slavocracy, and Jim and Jane Crow were never truly banished from America. Instead, they laid dormant and are now being reborn in the form of today's Republican Party and the larger white right. Public opinion polls and other research shows that tens of millions of white Americans are willing to trade democracy for authoritarianism if it means that white people like them did not have to share power with non-whites. The world they and Trump and the Republican fascists and "conservative" movement are trying to (re)create would be a new American Apartheid.

In an attempt to make better sense of these resurgent politics of white backlash and white supremacy, DeSantis's war on "Woke" and "the Critical Race Theory Mind Virus" and the real history of Black America, and how the color line intersects America's ongoing democracy crisis more broadly, I recently spoke with Tim Wise. He is one of the nation's leading anti-racism activists and the author of numerous books, including "Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority" and "Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trumpism continues. There was a white supremacist mass murder in Jacksonville a few weeks ago – on the same day as the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. King's dream is still very much unfulfilled and extremely imperiled. How is your hope tank doing? How full or empty is it?

I am obviously horrified and concerned that we're going to see more white racist terror attacks and hate crimes. When they figure out they can't win legitimately at the ballot box, they're going to turn to the bullet.

They certainly have a lot of guns, and they have a lot of rage. I don't mean that in a prophetic way; it is pretty obvious.

There are some reasons to be hopeful, even in these dark times.

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Ron DeSantis in Florida has overplayed his hand dramatically with the war on "wokeness". That's not catapulting him to the forefront of the Republican primaries.

They thought that attacking wokeness and critical race theory and LGBTQ folks was going to allow them to just, you know, just run the board. Those attacks do work, let's never underestimate the power of bigotry and hatred.

We know it works politically on the right, but it's also creating and generating a certain degree of pushback.

The "Critical Race Theory" bogeyman and "Woke" monster didn't go into that Dollar General store and murder three black people.

It never does. No one commits a mass shooting and then writes a manifesto where they footnote Derrick Bell or Kim Crenshaw, bell hooks, Audrey Lorde or other CRT scholars and thinkers and mainstream liberal antiracists more generally.

It is one thing to have a disagreement about an issue a policy issue, such as immigration or affirmative action or policing.

But if that disagreement is made into a question of existential threat, such as "you're taking our country from us!" which the likes of Tucker Carlson and other right-wing personalities do over and over again, or that "those people", black and brown people, the Other, want to hurt "people like you" then you are creating and us vs. them dichotomy. That encourages violence.

Although most people won't respond to that right-wing narrative in the same way as those racial terrorists have done, some of the public on the right will. There are real connections between hateful rhetoric and political violence.

Thankfully the white right is not as smart as they need to be to get all the things done that they want. The question is, can we stop them before they get smart and really figure out how to play the game?

"The reality is there's something horribly dysfunctional and pathological in white culture right now."

Because I think at this point, they still are just so overzealous about their reactionary beliefs that they end up alienating the large numbers of supporters they need to create a broad coalition. I don't want to keep gambling on that.

Nonetheless, I clearly recognize the threat that is represented by the right-wing and their willingness to burn it all down for the sake of getting and keeping power.

Help me work through this given your decades of experience. There are any number of things I could have written about the recent white supremacist killing of three black people in Florida. I chose not to. Ultimately, what is there left to say about white racial terrorism? How have you navigated the pressure and expectation to always have something to say about "race issues"?

I definitely don't try to say something every time there is that type of hate crime or racial terrorism. What could I say that would really be different from what we know and has already been said so many times already?

What I've learned over the years is that I don't have to always be the first voice. I most certainly don't have to be the loudest voice on these "race stories."  We all need to be able to take a little breath here and here and there.

But here is something for folks like you and me to consider. What is so utterly obvious to us doesn't make it any less horrific. This is America after all. We know the history and present of this country and the color line. We are experts on it. But to other people this may be shocking and amazing somehow. Given the efforts by Republicans and Trumpists to whitewash the country's history it is important for people like us to explain those connections of the past to the present and not take it for granted that people know that history and the facts.

How do we make sense of what is obvious to you and me and others who have studied the real history (and present) of this country and translate that for others who are willing to listen and learn?

The media's problem – and this is true of the average white American – is that they don't spend much time seriously thinking about race and politics and larger issues of justice and equality like you and I and other experts do. That isn't meant as a criticism of those people, being ignorant of these things may actually be a bit healthier for them emotionally and physically. We know the cost of doing what we do has been for us.

In terms of fascism and racial authoritarianism like we are seeing with Trumpism and today's Republican Party and conservatives, many Americans really believe that "it can't happen here." That America is so exceptional and unique. They really believe it. That is true on the left and right and center, across the spectrum. Biden believes in American Exceptionalism. Obama certainly believes in it.

If you really believe that America is so exceptional and that fascism can't happen here then you look at Trump or DeSantis and then it is much easier to say, "Oh, they just don't even know what they're doing, they're just so stupid". Or "Look how ridiculous they are!"

Too many people are so desperate to find the good in people and have convinced themselves that America can't produce evil leaders – or followers of an evil movement – that they just deny what they are seeing with fascism right here at home.

Now, of course, if you're black in this country or indigenous you most certainly know about the evil things that America and Americans have done.

"The right-wing also has a backup plan, which is if we can't stop the country from becoming more diverse, then we're going to at least make sure that we control the story they learn."

Baldwin observed that black people have never had the luxury of living with the myths that white people depended upon.

White Americans really believe we could never do those evil things, in spite of the fact that white people as a group have done such evil things before in this country. Why is it so hard for white people to see the truth about America? Well, it's so hard because we want to maintain that image of a shining city on a hill. If that is not true and revealed to be a lie, then we white folks would have to rethink our entire worldview.

There's really nothing about our history that says we're inherently better than countries such as Germany or South Africa with all of the objectively evil things they did. A triumphalist and American Exceptionalism view of history blinds too many people to those uncomfortable realities.

None of what DeSantis and the other Republicans are trying to do with whitewashing American history is new. The Lost Cause ideology was a similar effort to lie about history to make white people look like they were innocent or even more absurdly victims in the civil war and the struggle to end slavery.

But the right-wing also has a backup plan, which is if we can't stop the country from becoming more diverse, then we're going to at least make sure that we control the story they learn. We're going to control the nation's narrative and literally whitewash it. Then we are going to go farther and try to indoctrinate black and brown people in these white supremacist narratives as well. We are seeing that with prominent black and brown Trump MAGA types.

To state the obvious because it needs to be stated, if black or brown folks were committing hate crimes and mass murders and other racially and politically motivated violence as seen in Jacksonville, Buffalo, El Paso, Allen, TX, etc. — and never mind the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump's followers — there would be a "national conversation" about what is "wrong" with "the black family" and in the "black community" and "black culture". There would also be demands that "Black leadership" and/or "Muslim leaders" denounce such crimes and speak out against it and otherwise be held accountable. When a white person commits such acts of terrorism and violence, no such parallel conversation takes place.

It's critical for us to ask that question in exactly the same way and spirit that the right-wing has always asked it about black folks.

It's always about what's wrong with the black family, what's wrong with the black community? What's wrong with black culture?

The reality is there's something horribly dysfunctional and pathological in white culture right now. And I don't even know what "white culture" means, necessarily. It's very hard to define.

The white family and white communities are losing their sh*t right now and have been throughout the Age of Trump and in the years before. That is tied to white privilege.

Privilege has always been a double-edged sword where even if you live in a society where people like you have always been privileged and you are on top of the hierarchy then any level of even perceived threat or challenge in your life causes a type of self-destruction reaction.

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If you're used to getting your butt kicked, and you're used to being on the bottom of the pile, and having to scrape for everything, and for any recognition, even your own humanity, then you learn how to do that as a matter of survival. Because if you don't learn how to struggle, if you don't learn how to deal with setbacks, you don't survive. But if you haven't had to do that the least little discomfort becomes amplified and multiplied to the nth degree.

It is no coincidence then that the reason that we are seeing such disproportionate rates of opioid abuse, suicide, heavy drinking and the so-called deaths of despair among "working class" and "poor whites", but especially white men, is from a perceived threat to their privilege and social status. There are other changes to American society with technology and the extreme economic precarity and insecurity caused by late-stage capitalism and globalization that are impacting Americans across the board, but white people as a group are experiencing this as an acute threat to white privilege and white entitlement.

Instead of interrogating how the expectations of whiteness and white privilege and the cultural tropes and narratives of whiteness and its lies have hurt them, many white people are lashing out at the wrong people.

We need to ask these questions in a compassionate way. What is wrong with White America? What is wrong with the white family? Why are they increasingly dysfunctional? Why are they as a group increasingly unable to deal with the world as it is?

It's a very humanistic thing to say, how do how do we save these people from themselves so they can stop hurting other people too? If we can't figure out how to help white families, and white people and white communities, a lot of black and brown folk are going to die first.

What should "white leadership" be doing in response to Trumpism and the MAGA movement, neofascism, racial authoritarianism, and the rise in hate crimes and other antisocial behavior committed by white people against nonwhites and other targeted groups in the Age of Trump?

I think it's important for them to not only condemn white supremacy, as Biden has done, obviously.

It is also critically important to point out that if black people, Muslims, Latinos, or any other "minority group" was engaging in this behavior that there would questions asked about family, culture, leadership, etc

There is an obvious element of hypocrisy at work here: white pathology is usually not considered racialized pathology. Many people can't even conceptualize it in those terms because to be "white" is by definition to be "normal" in America.

When white folks commit violence, it's seen as an American problem.

When white folks have a disproportionate opioid crisis, it's an American problem.

When the jobs start to leave the heartland and the rust belt in these white communities, it's an American problem.

Whereas when those things happen in black and brown spaces, it's a very specific racialized problem. And we need politicians who are willing to call that out and to say, "Listen, the reality is that there are some very specific dysfunctions and pathologies that are taking place in the white middle class and above. These problems are not exclusive to Appalachia.

These are not problems and challenges that are just impacting poor white people and the "white working class" who live in trailer parks.

Also, it is not poor white people who are going out and buying assault rifles and building an arsenal who then commit mass shootings at schools or Walmart of Dollar General or wherever. We need to be asking why it is a certain cohort of white people who are engaging in these types of destructive behaviors.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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